In 2009 I had a very awkward interview.
During my fellowship application with a global legal aid group, their head council and I started talking about a few of the other candidates, including one candidate from the University of Michigan.
"Someone from Ann Arbor!" I said, overjoyed at a chance to talk about the world's best football team.
"No, East Lansing," he replied, and the conversation unraveled quickly from there.
It turned out that this young woman had simply put "Michigan Law School" on her resume, a bit of creative accounting that encouraged people to confuse her degree from Michigan State Law School (then a tier-three institution) with the University of Michigan (top ten). Whether or not she technically lied, she certainly didn't correct any false assumptions and clearly hoped no one would connect the dots on her home address. It did not end well.
Resume shenanigans rarely do. Claims you make on a resume are far too easily checked, and Google is far too thorough a resource, to play these kinds of games. Even when an employer doesn't vet you small things and bad luck can give the game away. So, for the sake of your career, avoid these ten common things people fudge their resumes.
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Two things are true when it comes to listing specific skills on your resume. The first point is that this is some of your best content. "Knowledge of C# and the following project management suites" is a much better line than "proactive analyst who leverages diverse skillsets." The former tells an employer what exactly you bring to the table; the latter screams "has nothing good to say."
The second point is that this is one of the easiest lies to get caught in.
According to research from CareerBuilder, 62% of employers have seen lies and exaggerations about skills on resumes. People do this all the time, but what happens when your employer actually wants you to follow through? After all, if you said you can build a shed, sooner or later they'll hand you a hammer and a stack of two-by-fours. What then?
As we discussed up top, it's very easy to get caught in a lie about your education. Nevertheless plenty of people still try it.
Some try to fabricate entire degrees, looking for the career boost that comes from a master's or PhD without the work and debt it takes to get there. Especially in an age where student loans increasingly blur the line with indentured servitude, this is somewhat understandable. But a quick call to the registrar's office or sometimes even a search online can pull this whole lie apart.
Other people try to inflate their degree, turning a bachelor's into a masters or claiming to have attended a more prestigious institution. This can fail for all the same reasons as lying about having a degree at all, and when it does the consequences can take down your entire professional reputation.
Even if they don't make up a degree, plenty of people try to fudge their accomplishments in school. According to employers, almost 20% of resumes that they see embellish or invent "accolades/awards."
Now, this lie is a little easier to get away with than making up the degree itself. Confirming someone's GPA takes a little more effort than checking on attendance, and sometimes requires a written request to the registrar's office. So there's a chance your employer won't look for it.
But is that the standard we're shooting for here? Honesty counts, both as a professional virtue and because getting caught in a lie doesn't just put your application at risk. People have gotten fired even years into their job because human resources caught a lie on their resume or in their original application.
No one likes being lied to. A harder lie to catch doesn't make it any better.
More than half of employers say they catch applicants lying about the scope of their responsibilities in previous jobs. It's easy to see why.
Unlike hard skills and academic credentials, job responsibilities require a lot of interpretation. Someone who oversaw one project did, technically, get management experience. Occasionally updating the company website is a technical background, even if probably not one that qualifies you to work at Apple.
This is honestly a tricky area.
As a job applicant you want to write a resume that shines, one that will catch an employer's eye and help you stand out from the pile. At the same time, you want to honestly describe your responsibilities and accomplishments. The best approach here is to rely on the age-old rule of good editing: don't invent something new, make yourself the best version of you. Once it starts getting dishonest you can set yourself up for trouble.
A hard truth about applying for a job is that the more you need one, the harder it gets to find one. Potential employers run credit checks and other financial checkups, and they highly prize people who already have a job. After about five months of unemployment your odds of getting an interview drop in half, and that statistic is actually a huge improvement over matters just five years ago.
So it makes sense that lots of people try to fudge their dates of employment to try and cover up gaps in their resume. This is a very bad idea.
Like academic credentials, dates of employment are incredibly easy to check. One call to a past employer can confirm this, and lots of employers do this kind of due diligence before taking the expensive, risky step of actually hiring someone. A gap on your resume may be hard to explain and difficult to work with, but it's still far better than telling a lie.
The corollary to fudging dates is when people invent self-employment. According to The Ladders, as many as 18% of applicants do this, creating fictitious (or "ghost") companies or inventing a story about self-employment to cover for periods of inactivity.
Often the lie starts somewhere. Building a doghouse for your brother becomes "professional contractor." Updating a personal blog becomes "freelance writer." Watching a friend's children becomes "childcare expert."
Again, it's easy to see the temptation here. When you're applying for a job it can feel like absolutely anything is better than writing "unemployed," but this isn't just about getting caught (which you very well might be). Your employer might expect you to demonstrate skills and contacts that you should have picked up during those years of self-employment. If you spent most of that time catching up on Adult Swim, it won't end well.
Here is the conversation that will probably happen if you lie about a job title on your resume:
"Hi Mark, this is Lisa calling to ask about your shift manager Steve."
"Steve Applicant, your daytime shift manager. We're thinking about bringing him on."
"I don't know what you're talking about. We have a Steve Applicant who works as a desk clerk, but our day manager is named Renata."
As we've touched on several times in this piece, one of the biggest problems with lying on your resume is that anything worth lying about is easy to check up on. An even halfway cautious employer can search for the staff at most workplaces, which often publish this information online especially in leisure and hospitality (the industry in which the most people lie). Or the employer will pick up the phone and make a call. Either way, it ends poorly.
Dovetailing back to our last point, you're taking a big risk when you tell a lie that could fall apart with a simple phone call.
Now let's consider the time bomb you set under your own career when you actively invite an employer to make that call.
This is why you really should not fake your references.
Job applicants need to be scrupulous when it comes to listing references. Check with each person on that sheet before you put down their name and number. Confirm you still have their employer and position information right and don't cut any corners. These are the people who are supposed to vouch for you and your career. It won't end well if they have to admit that they knew you for fifteen minutes back in 2006.
Foreign language proficiency is one of the most impressive skills you can list. Just consider how often people use multi-lingual skills as a shorthand for raw intelligence. "He speaks three languages" is a quick way of saying "impressive."
Learning a foreign language takes hard work, mental flexibility and talent. Even if it has nothing to do with your specific job duties, it's one of the best ways to impress a potential employer.
Just like hard skills (see above), it's also very easy to get caught in a lie about speaking a foreign language.
What happens if you show up for work and someone in the office actually does speak Russian? What if they get a new client who just happens to be from Munich? There are a lot of ways this can go wrong, and life is not a wacky sitcom where you'll get to check Babelfish in the bathroom. This won't end well.
"It may be tempting to change your job description to say you managed a project you just helped out with, but don't. During your interview, employers will ask questions that will require you to talk about your role and experience. How you answer will reveal whether or not you really know what you're talking about, or you fabricated a few things."
Specific accomplishments fall into one of two categories.
One: This project did exist, but someone else did it. Do you really think they won't be out there publicly taking credit for their good work? If someone planned a successful conference they're not going to be shy about it, and none of that credit will have your name on it.
Two: This project did not exist, in which case what exactly happens when your future employer tries to find that paper you claimed to write?
In either case, this ends badly.